Earth Etude for Elul 7: The Power of Limit-Making

by Maggid David Arfa

“Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” R. AJ Heschel

A riddle:  Lily pads are doubling on a pond every day, Day 1- 1, Day 2- 2, Day 3- 4, Day 4- 8 and so on.  On day 30, the pond is filled.  On what day is the pond half filled?

Answer: The 29th day.  And the 28th day the pond is only a quarter filled.  The 27th day? The 26th day?*


I am writing one week after the destruction that is Tisha B’av. It is now the time of consolation. And yet, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our great teacher, is begging to cross over into the good land.  He is old, but still of strong mind and strong eye. This man who has done so much — growing up as Egyptian royalty, grappling with the injustice of society, choosing to act by confronting Pharaoh and leading an enslaved people into freedom- is a man not used to taking no for an answer. He is pleading to join his people as they cross over, and the response is not consolation, instead it is harsh rebuke- “Enough!”**  And yet, I can’t help but look deeper, to find consoling insights to bring into our Elul reflections.

A kabbalistic understanding teaches that if Moshe crossed over, he would have unified time and brought the Messianic era — he would have ended hatred, greed and war for all time.***  There would be no injustice left in the world.  Perhaps the Holy One is insuring that future generations get to help out too!  My mind connects back to another ‘Enough!’ when the Holy One shouted to the expanding World at the very beginning of time- ‘Enough!;!^  Both in their own way, show that, dayenu, limits to growth are woven into the very fabric of our world.  If the primordial world continued to expand and expand; if this cosmic fast forwarding was allowed, all would be over before beginning.  In fact, the name of Gd that is Shaddai is ‘the One Who Says Enough!’^^ The One who had to limit the primordial expansion of the world also limited the ultimate expansion of Moshe’s righteous work.  Could this cosmic power be relevant for our affluence that is consuming and drowning the world?

Thanks to corporations built on historic conquest, slavery, massive waste and pollution, we have expanded to the point where we can carry all the musicians of the world in our pocket; we can place all the foods of the world on our table; we can search through all the hard-won intellectual treasures of the world at our fingertips, we can play and watch all the games, movies, comedians and news of the world on demand.  We can have desserts, with creamy filling, every night of the week!  I still remember my unbounded delight when I learned that my childhood allowance could buy me individually wrapped cheesy burgers, yellow cakes filled with cream and blueberry pie pockets drizzled with glaze. To know no bounds seemed equated with freedom.

And yet, we all know our planet is in dire need of limits.  Our planet is being seriously impacted by our collective means of energy production, food systems, transportation choices and buying habits.  The Earth can not withstand continued consumer growth.  We need to recognize limits.

Amazingly, the Rabbis, at their mythopoetic finest, remind us that we are co-creators, partners with the Holy One in setting limits.  We are not just passive receivers, but also hold the power of ‘Enough!’.  The Rabbis teach us that each week, when we lift the goblet of grape, and we invoke those words from Torah that finish the world of creating, we are wielding the power that limits the expanding world.  At that moment we become partners with the Holy One when we say “Vayechulu, and they were finished” (Heaven and Earth were finished).  The Midrashists creatively shift a few vowels, raising our participation by turning Vayechulu into Vayechalu;‘They finished’ (Creator and Human finished together).^^^

All of us who have tried a diet or negotiated with children the limits of screen time, know how hard and important it is to set and maintain limits. Let alone trying to finish the work of the week or the most impossible of challenges that Moshe faced, trying to finish the work of a life!  Our work to tame consumerism in our life and society is nourished by this wisdom.

Through this gate of limits, we can claim the power of voluntary simplicity, of consciously reversing the trends of non-stop industrial growth.  Inspired by the power of our own voices saying ‘Enough!’, we can look into our lives, we can talk with our families, our synagogues and our communities and find new ways to simplify and reduce impact. In this way, the work of limiting is not the work of self deprivation, instead it is the work of growing in dignity.

This Elul, how will your powers of limit making deepen?


*The Limits to Growth by Meadows, Meadows, Randers and Behrens, 1972;  **Deut 3:26 *** Meor V’Shemesh, translated and edited with commentary  by Aryeh Wineman, 2015; ^Hagigah 12a.  ^^Hagigah 12a.  ^^^Shabbat 119a.

David Arfa, Maggid (Mah-geed/Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism’s storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom.  David leads monthly outdoor Shabbat-inspired services at the High Ledges in Shelburne MA and facilitates public Mikvah (with bathing suits) in the Deerfield River each week before Shabbat.  He has produced two award winning CD’s, ‘the Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe’ and ‘The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Who Ever Lived’.  His full length storytelling performance, ‘The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe’ won the Cohen Center Hildebrandt award for its “artistic quality, technical mastery and depth of vision.” 

David is currently the Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams and enjoying bringing experiential, art-based programming into Jewish education.  David is also enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education specializing in the role of story in meaning-making with elders.  David lives in the Berkshire foothills of Shelburne Falls. His storytelling and environmental offerings can be found on his website at  




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